India: Colossal Pest Attack Leaves Trail of Destruction in Assam

Jhumur Deb
Guwahati, India
2016-09-16
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160916-IN-rice-1000.jpg An Indian farmer carries paddy seedlings for planting rice in his field in Raha, a village in the northeastern Indian state of Assam, Aug. 10, 2016.
AFP

Updated at 2:24 p.m. ET on 2016-09-16

Rice farmer Niranjan Deka said he was helpless as an army of pests destroyed a year’s worth of work within hours.

“My paddy crops were ready to harvest, but are all finished now. Those worms devastated more than an acre of my farmland in less than 24 hours. And all I could do was stand by and watch,” Deka, a resident of the northeastern Indian state of Assam, told BenarNews.

He and other farmers across Assam, one of India’s biggest rice producing states, are staring at difficult times ahead because of an infestation by caterpillars that swarm paddies.

Locally known as “shur puk,” the species of caterpillar also known as armyworms, has wiped out about 87,000 acres of paddy fields in 22 districts of Assam during the past four days, affecting nearly 100,000 farmers, according to the state’s Agriculture Department.

The infestation has caused an “unprecedented agricultural crisis” in the state, Assam Agriculture Minister Atul Bora said.

“In just a few days the problem has taken an epidemic proportion. It appears now [that] we are facing one of the biggest pest attacks the state has ever witnessed,” he told BenarNews.

Prevalent across South Asia, armyworms usually emerge after monsoonal floodwaters recede. Several weeks ago, devastating floods from monsoonal rains inundated parts of Assam and nearby Bangladesh, another big rice producer.

Bora said he had already briefed leaders of India’s ruling Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) in New Delhi and sought their help to tackle the menace.

‘Impossible to control’

The last time a major infestation hit the state was in 1967, but the damage was not as widespread, according to experts. They warned that there was little anyone could do to stop the destruction.

“Rice-swarming caterpillars are considered one of the most dangerous pests. Fields attacked by them resemble fields grazed by cattle. These armyworms should be eliminated as soon as they appear near any farmland. But now that these worms have entered the paddy fields, it is near impossible to control them,” Kabindra Borkotoky, a Guwahati-based agriculture expert, told BenarNews.

Marginal farmers with small land holdings are the worst affected by the pest attack, he said.

After the recent floods in Assam that damaged standing crops valued at more than 1.93 billion rupees (U.S. $28.7 million), small farmers somehow managed to transplant paddy, which was due to harvest in October, Borkotoky said.

“But now, these farmers, who have no savings, are left with nothing and are staring at possible starvation in the absence of any government help,” he added.

Praying for supernatural intervention

And while the state government waits anxiously for New Delhi to help, troubled farmers across the region are resorting to lighting prayer lamps and holding religious rituals in their fields in hopes of a supernatural intervention that might save their crops.

“I can’t wait around and see my family starve to death. Only God can help us now. Otherwise, I’m afraid committing suicide will be the only option left,” Palash Bora, a farmer from Golaghat district, told BenarNews.

More than 70 percent of India’s 1.25 billion people depends on agriculture for a living. Failed crops, due to drought, flooding or infestation, leads thousands of farmers to commit suicide annually.

According to the latest figures from the National Crime Records Bureau, more than 5,600 farmers took their own lives across India in 2014. Bankruptcy and the inability to repay debt in the absence of concrete government support are the most common reasons for why farmers kill themselves, the bureau found.

“It’s been four days since the damage started and it is continuing at an alarming pace. But the government has yet to announce any concrete measures to help the farmers. Time is running out and I fear if the government does not intervene immediately, the farmers will have to pay a heavy price,” Akhil Gogoi, a peasant leader in Assam, told BenarNews.

An earlier version gave wrong information about the monetary value of crops lost in Assam through recent floods.

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